Man of Steel

Posted: July 11, 2013 in Film reviews

Directed by Zack Snyder. Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe.

So seven years after Superman last returned (in somewhat underwhelming fashion) Krypton’s last son is back , and this time rather than trying to carry on the continuity of the original Christopher Reeve films the Superman universe undergoes a complete reboot, in big budget style directed by Zack Snyder and produced by Christopher Nolan.

Snyder is a man who doesn’t always seem to understand the word subtlety, a man who delights in big budget visual extravaganzas of variable quality, because as good as his Dawn of the Dead remake was, and as faithful as Watchmen was, this is also the man who gave us the dreadful Sucker Punch. By contrast Nolan makes more cerebral blockbusters, and is the man who resurrected Batman and grounded him in something close to reality, he’s also a man who makes increasingly bloated and convoluted films.

It’s an intriguing combination, but do their two styles merge into something new and vibrant, or do they clash like a red shirt and an orange tie?

The film opens on the planet Krypton, a world in the throes of catastrophe, where Jor-El is trying to convince the council to let him act to save some remnant of their civilisation. His entreaties are interrupted by General Zod and his troops, there to stage a coup in their own desire to save Kryptonian civilisation, although Zod’s ideas and Jor-El’s are at odds, and Jor-El escapes, placing his son, Kal, in a spacecraft and sending him to Earth. Meanwhile Zod and his cronies are sentenced to eternity in the Phantom Zone…

Skip forward many years (not to mention light years) and an adult Clark Kent is a drifter, working in a succession of dead end jobs as he tries to figure out who he is, and why he can do the things he can do. An encounter with an ancient space ship provides him with some answers, and also sees him meet a young reporter named Lois Lane, but the Phantom Zone may not be the escape proof prison the Kryptonian high council thought it would be, and soon Earth might be in need of a super powered champion…

You know I really was wary about this, I have a love hate relationship with Snyder’s films, and whilst I’ve been a Nolan fan as far back as Memento, his recent films haven’t filled me with as much joy, plus I’ve never been the biggest Superman fan in the world, I tend to prefer my superheroes a little less invulnerable.

So maybe you could attribute the fact that I loved this to low expectations, though I don’t think that fully covers it, I think maybe it’s just a really good blockbuster.

The decision to reboot is a good one, meaning Snyder and Nolan can choose to jettison any aspect of the Superman lore they don’t want to include, maybe for good or maybe certain things will show up in any sequel.

Whilst the decision to show Krypton’s destruction is reminiscent of the original Superman back in 1978, the nature of effects work means we get a much greater idea of the scale of Krypton as a world, and how advanced its people are, unfortunately it all feels very familiar, and you can see shadows of other films here.

From Krypton’s destruction onwards however, this film treads a different path, rather than showing us Clark’s life from child to man in a linear fashion, this drops us into the story with a very adult Kal-El, and then feeds in his back story in a series of flashbacks. It’s a neat device, meaning they can show us Cavill as soon as possible, and he appears superhuman right from the off, even stripped to the waist with a beard, looking more like a Greek or Norse god than the clean cut Superman he’ll soon become.

Another neat twist is in his relationship with Lois, and the decision here pays dividends, both in portraying her as smart and savvy, whilst also enabling her to take a more central role in the story. There’s no shirt ripping, telephone boxes and no bumbling reporter Kent, and the film is all the better for it (and frankly I don’t think Cavill could top Reeve in the bumbling stakes, he really did have the dichotomy of the character down to a tee.)

That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of familiar sights, much as before Kal-el is schooled by his long dead father, and the arctic plays a part in this, even if there’s no actual fortress of solitude. Plus, you’ll really believe a man can fly, because the effects are stunning—even if some of Snyder’s faux documentary/Nu Battlestar Galactic style camera work sometimes left me a little cold.

Script and effects aside, it’s the casting that’s central to the film’s success, from Crowe’s surprisingly physical Jor-El, to Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Clark’s adoptive parents, showcasing Kal-el’s duel heritage, the majestic father from Krypton, and the more down to Earth folksy adoptive parents from Kansas. Throw in Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and the only thing missing is Jimmy Olsen…maybe next time.

The three best performances are the ones the film revolves around though. Michael Shannon’s Zod is about as far away from Terrance Stamp’s version as you can imagine. He’s a man capable of great savagery, yet at times he comes across as a noble warrior, and he has a reason for everything he does, making him he’s a great antagonist rather than just a moustache twirling villain. Amy Adams, as stated, is a great Lois, competent, funny, cute, tenacious, and is shown to be a good journalist, using her skills to track down her mysterious saviour, the only misstep is the cringe worthy “I’m a Pulitzer prize winning journalist” line but she’s so good I’ll let it slide.

Which brings us to Henry Cavill, who’s spot on as both Clark and Superman, managing to convince both as a confused young man and as the titular man of steel. Tall and well-muscled he’s a dominant screen presence and he really looks the part in the costume, but more importantly acts the part too, and you can see why he was originally in line to play the character pre-Superman Returns. For a Brit he plays a convincing American, not to mention a convincing super hero with God like powers.

The film is a little too long, and does take a while to bed in, but whilst some have complained that the final battle(s) goes on too long I had no problem with this. If anything I think there was more fat to be trimmed in the Krypton set scenes at the start, which seem a little superfluous, especially given that much of what we see is repeated when the ghost of Jor-El gives Clark a potted history lesson.

A little bit more humour would have been good too, although the film is a little funnier than I was expecting, and whilst the Avengers and Iron Man throw witticisms around like confetti, it doesn’t follow that every superhero film needs to do the same, and that’s probably the best compliment I can give Man of Steel, it’s very much a film that treads its own path. It’s not trying to be Superman or Superman II, it’s not trying to be The Avengers, it’s not even trying to be Batman Begins, though there are some similarities, all it’s trying to be is the best Superman film it can be, and for the most part it succeeds in spades.

All in all it’s just super, man!

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